Jeff Phillips: Never Chewed Gum Before

Snowy Street

{The following short story originally appeared in the online literary journal Metazen back in December of 2013. Sadly, Metazen is now defunct and the site has gone down. There were many fresh and interesting stories published there over the years. So here is “Never Chewed Gum Before” for a second life.}

Kid never chewed gum before. He was out with us and we offered him some and even though he was the least likely of my peers at the time to show off baboon tendencies, they came out. His brow looked different while he chomped, and it appeared his IQ dissolved with the saliva dripping down his throat.

The first snow of the season had blanketed everything earlier in the day. School had been called off and I had gone around the neighborhood rounding everyone up. I knew who this Kid was, nice Kid, thought why not let him tag along. He was out in his yard, in front of his one-story house, in his snow suit, pacing, humming, surprised by my invitation.

Gregory offered us all gum and Kid got all nervous, and finally it came out that he’d never ever chewed gum before. Maybe he’d confused it with chewing tobacco. Gregory had asked him straight up, maybe it was semantics, and Kid shook his head like a frigid girl afraid of jumping from a rock into water. Gregory pressured him to stick a piece in his mouth and Kid seemed to like it after the first few gnaws.

When the snow fell again later in the afternoon, when the sky made everything a touch blue, making it look colder, we were horsing around on the snow banks pushing each other off and throwing powdery snow balls that fell apart before the toss. Kid’s mouth went agape and the gum fell out, sunk into the snow. That was that. But Kid’s face went pale, his breathing and shoulders clamped simultaneously, tight panic, like he’d lost a precious piece of meat he was supposed to bring home to his mother and father. Like he messed up some important life sustaining thing or lost an heirloom and someone was going to kill him.

We all gave him a hard time. We could feel his resentment absorbed by the falling snow, and when it touched our noses, we could even sense the palpitating distance between us and Kid. We eased off after awhile because it seemed maybe no one had ever before made fun of him to his face, and it made sense, I mean, the Kid never chewed gum before that day.

Then Gregory offered him a new piece but he declined. Said maybe he’d had too much of a good thing. We all laughed. And he got quiet. He stretched across the top of the snow bank, belly flat against the mini peak. And the afternoon tipped that spot where it became evening; you could tell the blue was being sucked into a void.

Then these dogs came up behind the snow bank and started barking at Kid and tugging his hat and scarf with their teeth. But Kid was calm, and just matter of fact, elbowed back the dogs. The dogs nipped but soon sprinted off into a patch of woods between two houses. Kid must have clobbered one of the dog’s teeth. We could hear the yelp and canine whine.

Kid slid down the bank face first, got up and said he wasn’t afraid of wolves. And we all almost laughed but it was like we all came to some sort of a psychic consensus to ease off because we all saw his mouth shrink to a mean pucker. It became apparent maybe he wasn’t so naïve but had been through some serious shit.

He got up, let out a feigned battle cry, “Wallllaalalalala!” smacking the “L’s” to the roof of his mouth, as though he were vengeful towards the ghost of the gum wad, and ran and slid face first into the street. A car’s headlight illuminated the snow fall at the bend ahead and we were like “get up! Get up! Don’t be pancake batter.”

He got up, stood aside, and looked concerned as the blue station wagon passed.

“I think I know him. Oh geeze. Do you think he saw me? I hope he doesn’t tell. Oh geeze.”

Gregory laughed. “Tell who? You have parents, Kid?”

Kid didn’t answer.

“You weren’t worried a second ago about getting hit by cars, but now you’re in a tizzy over a grown-up tattling on you?” Gregory continued.

“You worry too much,” I said.

“Don’t call me names!” Kid snapped.

“We weren’t, Kid.”

“You’re a worry wort. And a wild child. A Worry-Wort-Wild-Child,” Gregory added.

“Now you’re calling me names. Time to go.”

And he trotted off down the middle of the street, boots sliding off to the side with each step, making fat foot prints. A Snow Plow was coming up ahead and we were like, “is he going right for it?” But he ducked out just in time.

“There goes the worry wort.”

“There goes the wild child,” said another.

“There goes the worry-wort-wild child,” I added.

Gregory’s observation stuck

* * *

Years later, after high school, The Worry-Wort-Wild-Child got a job as a bank teller. This was in the midst of the stock market crash when AIG and Goldman Sachs looked like chumps in the news, and The-Worry-Wort-Wild-Child was real sensitive about the reputation it was making for his line of work. He also wasn’t shy about telling us that he had stolen directly from the cash register of the putt-putt golf place where he worked one summer job prior.

I remember the last time I saw him. A little prick behind his eyes made it seem like every sight to him was hard to stomach, even if it should have been eye candy he’d optically nibble on, like the big breasted girls drinking shots a few tables over. The Worry-Wort-Wild-Child should have been all over them. But his breathing and shoulders mimicked the tight panic I’d first seen him plucked by years ago. Something he’d be plucked with on occasion, in minor strokes, like any of us when life makes us dread something, though this looked to be something that wouldn’t just pass over the course of a night out with friends.

“I’m gut-sick about my reputation,” he said, nursing his beer.

“Yeah?” I said, draining the pitcher.

“I set out to be a stand up citizen, a regal role model, you know.”

“Sure you did.”

“I’m serious. A role model in business ethics.”

“You’re a bank teller.”

“I can’t talk to you.”

We were quiet a moment, then he continued.

“But as a banker, I get the stinking suspicion everyone is whispering to each other as I pass by that I’m a bandit.”

“No one is saying that. But you did snatch, what, hundreds from the putt-putt golf place?”

“I am a bandit, not intentionally, but by not doing my homework, and sticking up for the right people. It haunts me, my dreams. Work dreams of the worst kind.”

“Oh no, not those,” I teased.

“I’ve got this extra thrill seeking chromosome,” he said. “That sleeps most of the time. But when it stretches its nasty paws, boy, I ride those risks without properly evaluating the trajectory, the length, the height, the safety net, and stipulations of the ride. Then I worry about my lack of caution on the way down. I think I’m going to fall out, hurt myself, hurt others.”

“We still talking about your banking worries? Dude, you what, just take deposits and such? Chill.”

“I worry I may get spat on.”

I wasn’t sure I could do much to put his mind at ease, so I got up to order another pitcher.

By the bar, these bearded kids were trash talking the big banks, calling them evil and corrupt and needless, and I looked back at The Worry-Wort-Wild-Child and saw that he overheard, and he was up, and pushing these bearded kids around. The bearded kids were burly and knocked him down right away.

We all got kicked out.

Sitting on the hood of my car, he was holding a snow ball to his bleeding eye brow. Gregory and the others showed up, and they came and stood around to see what was going on with The Worry-Wort-Wild-Child.

“Go ahead, crowd around the wounded bandit,” he hissed.

Later I drove him home. There, the lights were off, but it wasn’t that late. He went around to the back of the house, and it was the last glimpse I ever had of him.

After that, whenever I stopped by, no one was home, but come to think of it, I never did actually meet his parents. Crossed my mind that he was a ghost, but no, ghosts can’t bleed.

One time I swung by to check, it was just after a dinner out, I popped in a stick of something wintergreen to get rid of a stale spread of garlic. Sinking my teeth in and out and rolling the wad around on my tongue, I wondered, in all of the years I knew him, if I ever saw him chew gum after that one snowy afternoon, and I just couldn’t, for the life of me, recall. He had an odd way of speaking, but I never focused on the mouth. I wracked my brain, idling in front of his old house. I thought, maybe I do remember him going around chewing, but that may just be my imagination. I had never stopped to pay attention to his jaws. Just the words that fluttered out from time to time form the impression of his time with us.

Maybe ghosts can bleed, but can’t chew gum.

I turn on C-Span sometimes; half expecting to see him on there, having shown up uninvited to a Senate Committee Hearing to spill his guts.

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